Kimber Lee says the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville has been the kind of place that only makes the news when something bad happens.
"Oh look, someone was raped or shot or stabbed in Brownsville," Lee says. "It's just for a brief span. Then it goes away, and nobody looks more deeply into the fact that Brownsville has been an underserved, ignored section of New York City since its inception."
In Lee's drama brownsville song (b-side for tray), having its regional premiere this week at Manbites Dog Theater, a woman who's just lost her grandson in Brownsville says something similar. Lee writes, "Same Old Story huh/ A few damn lines in the paper/ A split second a some poor old woman/ Wringin her hands and cryin on your evening news/ And then/ Nothing."
Lee based her drama, which premiered at the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, on a 2012 murder in Brownsville. Shortly after winning a college scholarship, twenty-year-old student athlete and amateur boxer Tray Franklin Grant was killed during a gang conflict he had no part in. Lee, a fellow boxer and a Brooklynite, first read about Grant on the blog of Sarah Deming, a writer and one-time boxer who'd tutored him.
"She said he didn't want to talk about his struggles," Lee recalls. "He felt it would make him seem like he was complaining. Yes, Tray had problems, one of which was losing his father—in the same way he'd die, actually. But he felt like, 'You know what, I have a good life.' He had a quiet strength. That just stayed with me."
When we first meet Tray, the ongoing generational violence in the neighborhood has already split his family. With his Korean-American mother, Merrill, estranged, his grandmother Lena is raising him and his nine-year-old sister, Devine. In intervening scenes, we observe the love and the losses that have already taken place—and the family bonds that have strengthened as well as those that have broken.
"I felt this strong drive to provide a certain kind of intimacy with this family, in the depth and complexity of their relationships," Lee says. "When you're hearing numbers and statistics on violence all the time, it can get a little faceless, nameless, person-less. I wanted to get behind the numbers."
She also had a point to make about the epidemic of deaths among young black men in recent years, whether from violence within their communities or at the hands of police.
"Those two things come from the same source: the conditions that are perpetually allowed to exist in certain neighborhoods in our cities," Lee says. "We're all implicated in that; we're all contributing to a system that allows those conditions to exist."
Since writing her play, Lee has become more involved in the community. Working with the Brownsville Community Justice Center, she has learned of young people whose greatest hope is for a one-bedroom apartment of their own in the projects. Her play might help those who've grown up in stable environments imagine such a state of mind, where possibilities are severely limited.
"You're constantly being told you're not going to make it," Lee says. "You think, 'Yeah, I don't really expect to live past twenty, so I'm just going to do what I'm going to do to get by.' Their ambitions are curtailed because of things beyond their control in a neighborhood so devastatingly underserved, and those things become the foundations for everything that ends up being in the headlines."
But Lee also points to renewed hope, in her text as well as in Brownsville. She notes that neighborhood organizations now are "dreaming a different direction" for the community.
"It's not just a dark, terrible pit where people fall in and die," she says. "It's someone's home. And the people who live there see it can be a wonderful place to live."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Where Brooklyn At?"